Cultural enrichment

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 7 August 2020

There must be a German word for it: That feeling when you are enjoying something that is just not quite right. Not a guilty pleasure, more an incorrect one.

Whatever you call it, I have that feeling each time I visit the München beer house on Wellington’s waterfront. Supposedly a German pub, it’s really a masterpiece of ‘cultural appropriation.’

Until a few years ago, no-one had ever heard of cultural appropriation.

Since then, we have learnt the term refers to the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own. It is one of the deadly sins of identity politics and punished by social ostracism.

Examples of cultural appropriation abound. Singer Rihanna was accused of it when she dressed in classic chola style. As a style invented in the 1960s by denigrated, Mexican-American, working-class women, its appropriation is a big no-no.

Actor Zac Efron faced similar criticism when he briefly tried a dreadlock hairstyle. He found himself rebuked for appropriating Rastafarian culture. How could he?

And this week, Auckland restaurant Coco’s Cantina announced it would consider a name change. Why? Because the former owner of Coco’s Cantina had just accused another restaurant, Kingi, of appropriating the Māori word for king.

In turn, one of Kingi’s advisors complained that Coco’s Cantina appropriated Latin culture (which itself had historically appropriated the word Latin from the Romans). That was offensive given its owners are not from Latin America but from Kaitaia.

Which brings me back to my Wellington watering hole, München. Or as its owners sometimes call it: Munchen.

München is as German as Toyota. There are no German chefs or waiters. They are creative with German orthography on their Facebook page (“Gutentag!” should be two words). And ‘Chicken wings with buffalo hot sauce’ is not a Bavarian specialty.

But München has some nice German beers on tap and a good selection of schnapps. It also makes a yummy new interpretation of Cordon Bleu with ham and cheese on top of instead of inside the breading. It’s a Swiss dish in any case, but never mind.

We should not expect too much authenticity from München’s owner Kāpura anyway. Formerly called Wellington Hospitality Group, Kāpura runs 35 bars and restaurants in New Zealand. Their venues include the traditional British pub ‘The Churchill,’ a place called ‘Master Kong’ that promises “seriously kick-ass Asian street food,” and the Italian-style Rizzo’s Pizzeria.

Oh, and Kāpura is the Māori word for fire.

Is any of this ‘cultural appropriation’? Of course not.

But there is a German term for it. It is ‘kulturelle Bereicherung’ – or cultural enrichment. And despite the raging identity politics wars, there is nothing wrong with that, in any language.

And while there is a Purity Law for German beer (since you asked, it’s from 1516), there is no such law for culture.

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